Movie Countdown: #45 – Poetry (2010)

POETRY.jpgLee Chang-dong’s movie about an elderly woman who takes up poetry lessons just as she begins to lose her memory and her grasp on verbs and nouns. Nobody (least of all herself) understands why she’s taken up the course. She inhabits an unintelligible world, replete with sullen, half-mute teenagers who can barely enunciate a word, let alone sort out their feelings; bodies of girls who wash up ashore for unexplained reasons and an entire system determined to shrug it all off. Mija works as a maid to be able to sustain her grandson and herself. But her professor preaches that there is potential beauty in everything, so Mija starts looking at things—starting with her kitchen’s dirty dishes and an apple—trying to see them for what they really are for the first time. (She ends up just eating the apple.) Whether her search for beauty begins as purely selfish escapism is up to the viewer to decide, and there’s a great comic desperation to her enterprise that is both pitiable and admirable. There is a magnificent scene where the old woman goes to the country to meet the mother of a girl who was raped, and she loses herself in the sensual radiance of the bright summer day. She picks up a fallen peach, sensing its “pain”; she feels it was “yearning” to be eaten. In this scene she is childlike, like a young poet for whom even pain is beautiful. She is so caught up in the purity of the moment that when the memory of the unsavory business that brought her there re-enters her mind, it nearly destroys her: beauty comes crashing down under the weight of reality. No other movie expresses the link between beauty and oblivion with this kind of devastating clarity. And there’s a shift. No longer content with just beauty, she now aims for the truth, too.

Yun Jeong-hie’s performance is a masterpiece of intuitiveness and self-discovery. Hers is the most original movie heroine of the 21st century: a poet in a world that’s done with poetry; a victim of Alzheimer’s who refuses to forget (or to even be a victim); an ignored old woman who finds empathy to be a source of infinite personal pleasure. (She might be to this century what Umberto D. was to the last.) One of the most amazing films to come out from South Korea, it has a love of life that’s almost heroic.

Dir. Lee Chang-dong / 2010 / South Korea

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Movie Countdown: #48 – Hunger (1966)

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Henning Carlsen’s brilliant film about a starving artist, set in 19th century Norway. Per Oscarsson plays Pontus, the homeless writer who holds on to his delusions of control and creativity in the midst of famine. It’s one of the all-time great performances. The town of Christiana (today’s Oslo) is populated by a swarm of strange faces. Pontus spies at these faces from a distance, convincing himself that they are the subjects of his art—that they’re his misshapen muses. As far as he’s concerned, they provide him with inspiration. The genius of this film is the gradual, horrifying revelation that he has it all wrong: the faces are staring at him and his deteriorating body and mind in disgust. The artist is transformed from subject to object, from creator to sewer rat. He becomes the grotesque character in someone else’s narrative: an anonymous narrative in which he is the joke. And so the fictions that he makes up to preserve his sense of self-worth as a human being and his role as an artist become increasingly meaner, more desperate, fueled by paranoia. He gives his last coin to a homeless man, a “true” dispossessed (he won’t allow to think of himself in those terms) to appear charitable and gentlemanly one more time, to set himself apart from the poor fellow. This portrait of the artist as a scavenger—as a cannibal toying with self-destruction because he can’t accept he’s not looking at the world from the heights anymore—has the pull of a nightmare. A true god needs no nourishment, and Pontus dreams about fighting rabid dogs for food. It makes the title take on a dual meaning: the hunger within him is more terrifying than the famine that hits Norway. Yet there is something sublime, even heroic in his determination not to bend. The artist will not be destroyed by anything or anyone but himself. He trudges on, like a cockroach after a holocaust.

Dir. Henning Carlsen / 1966 / Denmark